Old Forms, Fresh Outlooks

Innovation reigns, from 36-CD retrospectives to the Hüsker Dü of free jazz

Pick Hits

Chris Byars
Photos in Black, White and Gray
Smalls

Referencing Gigi Gryce’s alto sax and Lucky Thompson’s tenor, Byars finds new niches in bebop, picking up ’50s threads that got pummeled by hard bop, discarded by the avant-garde, then buried under whatever passes for post-bop these days. Much as bebop developed underground in places like Minton’s where musicians played for each other, the same dynamic developed at Smalls in the ’90s, connecting a new generation to unreconstructed veterans like Frank Hewitt and on to the foundations of modern jazz. Tapping into the process, Byars sounds fresh even while working in such a well-worn form. A MINUS


Chris Byars, Photos in Black, White and Gray
Chris Byars, Photos in Black, White and Gray

That Devilin’ Tune: A Jazz History [1895-1950]
WHRA

Miles Davis reduced jazz history to four words: Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker. Ken Burns’s 10-hour Jazz didn’t go much further than adding Miles Davis. Martin Williams’s canon-establishing five-CD Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz was more judicious, but he disposed of the origins problem by contrasting two takes of “Maple Leaf Rag”—one by Scott Joplin, the other by Jelly Roll Morton. Compiler Allen Lowe takes the contrary approach, picking records for the questions they raise. He’s repackaged his book into four boxes totaling 36 CDs and 854 songs. Researchers will want the first box, which doesn’t get to Armstrong until the last cut. Fans might start with the third, which announces “Swing is here” and never lets up. A


The Claudia Quintet
For
Cuneiform

I can’t conceive of calling this “post-jazz” or “post-rock”—two filing suggestions for John Hollenbeck’s ensemble—but “post-minimalism” would make sense: The beats are similar, and the melodies emerge in soft tones, pixilated and dithered like the artwork. But the self-imposed limits have been discarded for real-world complexity: resonant acoustic instruments, shifting time, even passages where Matt Moran talks and Chris Speed squawks. Only a dead-ender wouldn’t call it jazz. A MINUS


The Neil Cowley Trio
Displaced
Hide Inside

A rock-ribbed acoustic-piano trio, full of thumping chords, pogoing beats, assured elaboration, and calculated tension and release, showing they know English folk music—from Pink Floyd to Coldplay, anyway—and hoping to please as much as to dazzle. Ends with a whiff of electronics, remixing a fast one. A MINUS


Happy Apple
Happy Apple Back on Top
Sunnyside

Bad Plus drummer Dave King’s other power trio, with Erik Fratzke’s bass plugged in and Michael Lewis leading on one sax or another. Given their Minneapolis address, it’s tempting to call them the Hüsker Dü of free jazz, assuming you can manage the translation. It is jazz, after all, and while they like rock grooves more than most, they never leave it at that. A MINUS


Matt Lavelle Trio
Spiritual Power
Silkheart

Avant like it ought to be: sharp, shocking, bursting with creative ideas. Bassist Hilliard Greene and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson are worth tracking on their own, but Lavelle has a unique twist: playing three songs each on flugelhorn and bass clarinet, an unprecedented mix. His bass clarinet is utterly distinctive, its normal airiness choked down to short trumpet-like bursts. His native trumpet returns on one track, amid shouts of “Sí Se Puede.” Right— they can. A MINUS


Hugh Masekela
Live at the Market Theatre
Times Square/4Q

A 30th-anniversary bash for the Johannesburg venue, and a triumph for the trumpeter/vocalist who put his homeland’s music on the world stage in the 1960s. This works as an informal career summary, its two discs allowing him to stretch out and work the crowd and even preach a little, knowing there’s more than celebrating left to do. A MINUS


Yerba Buena Stompers
The Yama-Yama Man
Stomp Off

Second-generation revivalism, inspired less by King Oliver (whose two-cornet, banjo, and tuba lineup set the mold) than by Lu Watters’s Yerba Buena Jazz Band, which invented trad jazz. The Stompers’ John Gill started by ransacking those charts for such unambitious delights as Dawn Club Favorites and New Orleans Favorites. Running low after four albums, they’re finally forced to dig deeper, such as the 1908 title song. Watters should be proud; Oliver might wonder about the backward thinking. I just get off on the ebullient good humor that has always been the heart of jazz. A MINUS


Chris Potter Underground
Follow the Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard
Sunnyside

Adam Rogers’s guitar snaking over Craig Taborn’s blippy Fender Rhodes and Nate Smith’s drums makes for a fresh update on the old organ trio—especially when the pace slows, Taborn looks to be as far ahead of the field as Jimmy Smith was in 1958. Potter can play soul jazz, but he’s most impressive when he kicks out the jams, raising r&b honking to a higher plane. A MINUS


John Sheridan and His Dream Band
Swing Is Still the King
Arbors

Pianist Sheridan and his band of Arbors all-stars arrange a batch of Benny Goodman–linked songs in their own style, where the atmosphere is cool and the swing is gravity-free. Rebecca Kilgore enters on the fourth song and sings most of the rest, turning old chestnuts into delectable treats. A MINUS


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